14 July 2010

Flashblood: Accelerating Africa's Sad Trajectory

From Mombasa to Zanzibar, the blood of heroin addicts is circulating, carrying pleasure, disease, and death in its current. Referred to as "flashblood", the practise involves heroin addicts sharing not just needles, but their blood as well. The amount of blood transferred is about 5 ml, or a teaspoon, which is more than enough to transfer HIV from one person to another.
In most East African countries like Tanzania and Kenya, only 3 to 8 percent of adults are infected with the AIDS virus, far fewer than in southern Africa, where the rates reach 15 to 25 percent.

But among those who inject heroin, the rates are far higher. In Tanzania, about 42 percent of addicts are infected. The rate is even higher — 64 percent — among female addicts, Dr. McCurdy said, and since most support themselves through prostitution, they are in two high-risk groups, and their customers are at risk of catching the disease.

Most of the addicts she has interviewed who practice flashblood, Dr. McCurdy said, are women. For them, sharing blood is more of an act of kindness than an attempt to get high: a woman who has made enough money to buy a sachet of heroin will share blood to help a friend avoid withdrawal. The friend is often a fellow sex worker who has become too old or sick to find customers.

...And, there have been scattered reports of flashblood-type practices in other countries with large numbers of heroin addicts, including Pakistan, but they also have not been confirmed by researchers.

...After piercing a vein, an addict will typically draw some blood into the syringe, push it back out and repeat that three or four times to make sure all the heroin has been flushed into their blood. Those offering flashblood will usually hand over the syringe after only one in-out cycle.

The heroin sold in East Africa, she added, is often quite strong because it has come from relatively pure shipments on their way to Europe from Afghanistan or Asia.

Until recently, heroin use was uncommon on the continent because most Africans are too poor for traffickers to bother with. But in the last decade, smugglers have begun using port cities like Dar es Salaam and Mombasa and airport cities like Nairobi and Johannesburg as way stations on their routes: law-enforcement officials can often be bribed, and couriers from countries with no history of drug smuggling may escape searches by European border officers. The couriers may be paid in drugs, which they resell.

With more local users, more heroin is being sold in Africa. In the last decade, law-enforcement and drug treatment agencies said, heroin use has increased, especially in Kenya and Tanzania, South Africa and Nigeria. Brown heroin that must be heated and inhaled — “chasing the dragon” — has given way to water-soluble white heroin that can be injected. Prices have fallen by as much as 90 percent. _NYT

The dual epidemic of heroin and HIV is a tragedy for East Africa, which has experienced lower rates of AIDS up until now. Blood sharing increases the chance of drug resistant HIV in the population -- largely negating the billions of dollars in well-intended medical aid channeled to Africa over the past decade, in terms of future impact.

Much of the heroin is flowing into Africa's East Coast is hidden within the burgeoning conventional trade with China. The heroin is strong and uncut, giving the blood recipient a stronger rush than would be the case for the deeply cut heroin in North American or European cities.

For a population of low average IQ, you will not find many mind-altering drugs which have an overall beneficial effect. Heroin removes a person's motivation to achieve anything beyond acquiring the next dose of drug. Niceties of hygiene are seen as inconsequential in comparison to staving off withdrawal, and achieving the next rush. Communities of drug addicts become evolutionary incubators for colonies of pathological organisms, perfecting their virulence in preparation for a greater assault on the outside world.

Photo Credit: World News

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